A long distance Louisville love affair

The following article was written, but submitted late for inclusion in the final edition of ‘The Paper’. I thought it was worth publishing here instead…

Jon captured on his first visit by fellow exchange photographer and Louisvillian, Michael Brohm

Jon captured on his first visit by fellow exchange photographer and Louisvillian, Michael Brohm

There was a time, not so long ago, when I had no knowledge of ‘Louisville’ – sure I’d heard of the Kentucky Derby, KFC is a household name across the globe and the brands of the Brown-Forman corporation accompany many a Friday night’s wind-down. But the city, found on this bend in the Ohio river, was all new to me.

I first heard of the city when I was asked if the photography group I help run would be willing to host a photographer. Once we’d discussed the ‘why’ – that Leeds, UK (my city) and Louisville were partner (sister) cities and that he wanted to come and work in our city – we quickly moved on to turning this into something more extensive – an exchange.

Upon arriving in the city I didn’t know what to expect. I’d seen what Hollywood and television had said about middle America – so I was more than a little trepid; with hints of Dorothy as she first arrived in Oz!

It was also my first big transatlantic adventure as an adult – so I was only too happy to be met by a friendly face (and hug) from Michael – who we’d hosted a few months earlier – when I arrived, late on a small jet at an otherwise empty airport.

From that moment on my fears seemed to quickly vanish. Michael’s family started this by warmly welcoming me (while giving me my own space) and my ease increased from there. Almost everyone I met made me feel like I’d just met a new friend and, in honesty, many are still good friends – I’ve more Facebook buddies in Louisville than in any city other than Leeds!

My visit to the city included the amazing Idea Festival, but I also took advantage of opportunities across the city meeting everyday people – students at Spalding University, photographers on a picnic in Bernheim Forest, residents around the Nulu area and those working in Home of the Innocents and around the Highlands – to name but a few.

I was based in the East Market district – just hitting the ‘trendy’ status it’s since embraced – but I worked to make contacts from around Louisville who could share their city with me – and the people of Leeds.  As I went I introduced myself and my mission – aiming to bring our cities a little closer together – creating a visual record of the trip by recording all those I met and paying to take those portraits with pin badges. On that first trip I gave away 200 pins, to a largely enthusiastic bunch of recipients (some much more enthusiastic than others). I also promoted a photography walk along Frankfort Avenue, and amazingly 20 photographers turned up at the meeting place and accompanied me.

How did this work for me? Well – I feel like an adopted son of the city; I’ve made friends for life – it’s rare a day goes by without me talking to one friend or another in the city. I loved it so much I came back the following year – shooting more portraits, running another photowalk (50 showed this time), an exhibition of the previous year’s images and delivering three talks – including a Pecha Kucha talk in an agricultural store!

But the question I set out to answer is – if this is a love letter to Louisville, then who is it written to? Well that has to be the people of Louisville – you’re a wonderful bunch! You have made me call your home my second city – if I was to choose to leave Leeds right now I know which city would be top of my list! You’re enthusiastic, open, friendly, welcoming, embrace challenges, love the arts and embrace other cultures, intrigued by the unusual and (most importantly) you almost never say ‘no’ to having your photograph taken!

Louisvillians – I love you and cannot wait til we meet again.

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